The Whole Nine Yards.

On my recent trip up to Oregon to see my dad, I stopped in at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville.

It’s home to the Spruce Goose, which used to be on display in my old stomping grounds of Long Beach until it was moved permanently to the Evergreen Museum.

The Spruce Goose is an enormous wooden airplane designed by Howard Hughes. Can you find it in the picture above? Hughes was a genius, but a gigantic airplane made out of plywood at a time in his life when he was eight ways from crazy probably isn’t the best example of his brilliance. Yet the spruce goose is a big part of the poor fellow's legacy. That and the fact that he boinked an awful lot of starlets. A good life lesson for all of us, don’t you think?

My favorite plane in the whole place is the B-17 bomber - the Flying Fortress.

Here's a shot of the ball turret. This gunner's post protrudes from the bottom of the plane like an outie belly button. This little turret has futuristic science fiction written all over it. In fact, Gene Roddenberry - yes, the Star Trek guy - flew B-17’s in the Pacific Theatre during WWII.

The photo above isn't mine. It comes from an internet post called "In the Belly of the Beast: A tour of the B-17 Bomber 'Aluminum Overcast,'" and if you want to see some really amazing B-17 photos, you really should check it out. Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom for a gorgeous shot of a B-17 in flight during a full moon. I included this photo because I wanted to show the wonderful steampunk vibe these planes have. Because the plane was assembled in factories that made water heaters and ovens and radios, all of the dials and levers look like they belong on a toaster rather than an airplane. Which, of course, they do. Which, of course, is fantastic.

Here’s a propaganda video I found from WWII of a B-17 in combat. YouTube rocks! At the end of the video, an allied B-17 gets shot down, and as it plummets to the earth, the announcer says, “You can watch, but you can’t help.” Which makes the viewer want to charge through the screen and rescue those boys somehow. Which is the whole point. More on that later.

You can see in the video, too, the rate at which the gunners on those M2 Browning machine guns went through their .50 caliber ammunition belts. These ammunition belts were nine yards long, and supposedly this is where the phrase, “the whole nine yards” comes from. As in, “I gave him the whole nine yards,” meaning I shot as much ammo as I had. Or, “We’d better take the whole nine yards,” meaning that it will be a tough dogfight and we’d better take up as much ammo as we can carry.

Now, as some people point out, bolts of fabric have come in nine-yard lengths for centuries, and lots of people think the saying comes from seamstresses telling their clients that they’ll need “the whole nine yards” of a bolt of fabric to make a fancy dress. The fact that this saying could reference either a bolt of checkered gingham or a twenty-seven foot long string of .50 caliber bullets makes it all the more awesome if you ask me, though. In fact, I think I’d like a dress made out of nine yards worth of .50 caliber bullets. Anyone know a good seamstress / ball turret gunner?

As I mentioned, WWII propaganda films are constructed with the express purpose of persuading people to volunteer for service - lots of times by making the viewer want to exact revenge on the enemy themselves. That’s why the above film clip shows our boys plummeting to the earth in that B-17 - It makes the viewer want to DO something. And even those of us who weren’t alive during WWII have seen lots of these films and have been subjected to the emotions they evoke.

An example of this is probably best illustrated by this conversation I had with the docent who took me on the tour of the B-17’s interior. I don’t know the docent’s name, so I’ll just call him Vincent Price. The conversation went something like this:

VP: One of the main things the gunner had to remember was that from this position, he could spin this machine gun around and accidentally shoot off the tail or the wing of his own plane...

J: Is it possible for me to handle the Browning, please?

VP: Umm, what do you mean?

J: I want to handle the Browning. You know. Grab the grips and spin the gun around and go “Blam, blam, BLAM, blamitty BLAM BLAM!!
Take that, you Nazi bastards!!
Goebbel’s mother wears army boots!!"
and so on. May I please?

VP: (glancing out the door of the plane nervously) Ummm...

Poor Vincent Price. Look how nervous I made him, touching the precious, precious M2 Browning. But first of all, I did say please. Second of all, come on. You know that the minute the museum is closed, all of the docents run to their favorite planes and pretend that they’re flying aces. I can see it now: “No, Dennis. NO. Time out! You can’t shoot me down because Vincent already shot YOU down. If you’re not going to play fair, then you should let someone else man the Warhawk...”

Here’s the thing, though. Just like the tone set by those WWII propaganda films, the tone of this museum was definitely a nationalistic one. There were lots of planes dedicated to heroic flights and battles that really glorified our fly boys. There was even a kiddie section of the museum where children could sit in planes and have pretend dogfights with each other. None of which is necessarily bad by its own measure. After all, I wanted to pretend to shoot down pretend Nazis, in part, because the heroic atmosphere of the museum inspires those sorts of feelings. And no one wants Nazis, right?

The problem is, this sort of presentation has a tendency to make the real-life killing and deaths from real-life wars seem sanitary and abstract. It makes the visitor forget that shooting down planes in real life means that human beings will plummet to the earth from the sky and die. The machines may be modern, but the dying is the same as it ever was. And this fact deserves remembering, too.

From my mother's sleep

I fell into the State

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

-- Randall Jarrell, "The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner"


  1. Wow! Look at you! Shooting that thing in camo! :)

  2. Hee! The shirt was a happy accident. I didn't feel at all out of place, though, because there were lots of people there wearing camo. And I matched some of the planes, too!

  3. My gosh, Jen, what a fabulous post. Loved it in so many ways, perhaps most of all your sensitivity to the nationalist aspect of such places (and I see these in India too), and the sanitizing/glorification of warfare, esp. by air when you can play the WW Ace and not really think about the death and mutilation going on below you.

    Am floored in work right now, but am looking forward to reading your other posts...
    Hugs to you.

  4. PS: also love your recreation of what the docents're doing after hours :D. OF COURSE they are! That's the really fun part of the job!

  5. Excellent post Jen.

    I was wondering if the voices in the film were real, or added later for effect - until the one officer chewed out the younger one for yelling over the intercom.

  6. Thanks, e.k. and whitesocks! e.k., I was wondering the same thing, but it was the swearing that sold me on the authenticity. You're right, though, about the officer scolding the younger soldier for yelling on the intercom. That's a good clue, too. I suppose that it could still be actors reading from a transcript from the actual battle, but it comes off as pretty real, I think. Thank you for the encouragement and for taking time to comment! Whitesocks, I know you must be absolutely overwhelmed with your job right now, so thank you for taking a moment to share your thoughts! I definitely believe in honoring the sacrifice of our soldiers, but I'm one of those people who believes that it IS patriotic to explore the very real, tangible sacrifice these young people make to serve their country. And, of course, by that I mean that they actually, really, do die. For ever and ever. That's why the poem resonates so much with me. Thank you for your kind words!

  7. Wonderful post Jendocino! Appreciate the awareness and connection with reality that you bring to all that you write. Thanks.